Explosion deals serious blow to fragile ceasefire

War on terrorism: Israel
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The Independent Online

A powerful car bomb exploded in West Jerusalem yesterday in the first attack by Palestinian militants on civilians inside Israel since the massacre in the United States. No one was injured but the attack dealt a blow to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire.

In the three weeks since the 11 September attacks, there had been no suicide bombings or car bomb explosions over the 1967 Green Line between Israel and the occupied territories.

When the US and its allies mobilised their forces on an ambitious, and so far unfulfilled "war against terror", the Palestinian Islamic-nationalist guerrilla groups took the strategic decision to avoid being bracketed with those behind the US atrocities and to confine their operations to attacks on Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and soldiers who protect them.

But that came to an end yesterday morning – at least for Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the car bomb in a statement to Western news agencies in Syria.

Israeli police said the bomb, which exploded in the city's West Talpiot commercial district as Israelis were doing last-minute shopping for the Suqqot holidays, contained 12 kilogrammes of explosives and was packed with bullets and nails.

The attack was seized on by the Israeli government to bolster its argument that there is no distinction between Palestinian militant groups and Osama bin Laden, and that the much-vaunted international anti-terror coalition should include the former in its targets.

The car bomb instantly made world television headlines as "Breaking News" – a status not accorded to the 17 Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli army since last Wednesday's truce talks between Yasser Arafat and Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres.

The conduct of the Israeli army, which has continued killing Arabs – including children who were throwing stones – despite the truce talks, has widened the rift between Mr Peres and Israel's generals.

Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported yesterday that Mr Peres was "convinced" that the armed forces' Deputy Chief of Staff, Moshe "Bugi" Yaalon, had decided that the Palestinian leader should be assassinated. Although Mr Peres' spokesman denied the report, there is no doubt the Foreign Minister is critical of the tactics being pursued by the Israeli military establishment – a close ally of the hardline Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon – and its involvement in the political aspects of the conflict.

Mr Peres has found himself in the embarrassing position of entering truce negotiations with Mr Arafat – as both sides responded to pressure from the White House to stop the conflict – only to be undermined by the army on the ground.

Within hours of the ceasefire talks, Israeli army bulldozers were flattening homes in southern Gaza, prompting a skirmish in which three Palestinians were killed.

Yesterday, the leadership of both sides tried to persevere with negotiations. Mr Peres met two senior Palestinian officials, Ahmed Qureia and Saeb Erekat, yesterday afternoon in an attempt to keep it from unravelling.

The negotiators on both sides face the same problem of restraining militants bent on continuing the bloodshed. In the case of the Palestinians, these comprise a clutch of ruthless guerrilla groups. In the case of Israel, they include men who wear the uniform of the national army.